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Waste pumps

This is a guest post by John Bell.

In March of 2004 I took a job as a hydraulic pump design engineer at a private company in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The company had a contract with the EPA (NVFEL) in Ann Arbor to design and build prototype hydraulic pumps to be used in hybrid UPS delivery trucks. The project was the brainchild of Charles Gray, who had been with the EPA since its inception, and who retired in 2012. I was happy to further my career and to be involved in this interesting project, to help design a drive train that would use hydraulic pumps and accumulators to capture braking energy and then reuse that energy to accelerate the vehicle again. I believed in the project for the first six months, and then I saw the light. Turns out it was just another wasteful government boondoggle.

What happened? Things were not making sense. Firstly, I thought the approach was barking up the wrong tree because it was a series drive, instead of parallel, also known as a launch assist, which propels the vehicle from a stop and then switching to normal transmission as stored hydraulic pressure is exhausted. The hydraulics are only in use during braking and starting from a stop.

Conversely, a series hydraulic system (hydrostatic drive) is active any time the vehicle is moving.
So with a series drive the truck will be propelled by the engine-driven pumps as it cruises down the road at constant speed; not a good idea because gears are more efficient. Energy saved in the start/stop cycle will be used during constant speed driving, due to the inefficiencies of the pumps plus energy needed to flow the oil through the many hoses and fittings.

At least the EPA drive uses highly efficient variable displacement bent axis pumps. Hydraulic systems are generally heavy, noisy, expensive, and not very efficient, but are highly controllable and can pack lots of power in a small space. Electric hybrids (Prius) have high energy density, while hydraulic hybrids have high power density.

It would make more sense to use a launch assist in addition to the existing drive train, but there was no room for that on the vehicle. In fact the stock transmission had to be removed to make room for this new drive. Hydraulic hybrids are best suited for big, heavy trucks in frequent start/stop service, like trash trucks (Parker RunWise system). Even with fuel at $4/gallon, payback time is ten years or more, and by then the pumps may be worn out. With fuel at under $5 per gallon there is simply no business case for hydraulic hybrids unless they are heavily subsidized, like wind turbines.

Other things bothered me, but I played along: it was a good job to have. None of the people at the EPA had ever worked in industry, they were all career bureaucrats. The few times I went to EPA for meetings, the parking lot was full of SUVs, nary a Prius to be seen.

I am glad I only attended a few of the weekly meetings as I found Charles Gray annoying. Pompous and intoxicated by his position, he considered himself some kind of mechanical engineering genius, yet he only held a chemical engineering degree. He was always meddling in the minutiae of the pump, hoping to discover some breakthrough that others were too blind to see. Far from it, he went down many dead ends that I knew were a waste of time, but we were happy to take his money and give him whatever he wanted, to extend the program and give our suppliers more business.

Charles apparently had old connections in Washington DC and he was able to get funding for his pet project, playing with hydraulics until he retired. Government has a poor track record in developing new technology for industry, and I sensed that this would be another shining example. He also wanted to claim patents (at taxpayer expense) from which he would receive royalties. I looked up some of his patents, they are for things like solar hot dog warmers. We had about 10 people on the program, EPA had about 6 people on it, and our suppliers had several people working full time on it. Charles revised the specifications a few times, I worked on three generations of pumps in five years. Prototype pumps like these are very expensive, over $200,000 each, whereas production pumps are under $5,000.

We designers had a love/hate relationship with Gray and he was the butt of many jokes. We loved him for being the source of our jobs, but hated him for wasting tax money on silly ideas. I never asked my bosses what they thought of the program, I knew they were just playing the game too, they had good salaries. The whole program must have run north of $50 million total. It was a high pressure job and there was always a hurry up urgency about everything, as if hydraulic hybrids will save the world.

In March of 2009 the recession caught up with us and a quarter of the company was laid off, including me, and a year later the hydraulic hybrid program was ended. I was glad to be out of there, I knew that such a vehicle had no commercial value.

Let’s crunch a few numbers: the average UPS (or FedEx) package truck gets about 10 mpg and drives about 12,000 miles per year. UPS reports that the hydraulic hybrid system improves mileage 25% to about 12.5 mpg, which results in a savings of about 500 gallons per year. With gasoline at $3.00 per gallon that translates in to a savings of $1500 per year, or $15,000 per 10 years. Let’s say that a hydraulic hybrid costs a mere $15,000 more than a regular UPS truck, so it would take 10 years before the savings even begin! In that time I would think the pumps would be needing overhaul. I love hydraulics but this is not a good application.

To take a bad idea one step further, the EPA partnered with Chrysler in 2011 to build a hydraulic hybrid mini van, again with a series drive train. As I mentioned before, only large vehicles making lots of stops might benefit from a hydraulic hybrid drive, and the family car is way too small. I would love to drive that mini van, I can only imagine that it is louder, heavier, more expensive, and gets worse mileage that the stock vehicle.

I do not understand how people can think that such a drive would be commercially viable; it seems attractive on the surface, until you examine the numbers. Payback times of 10 years do not make good business sense. Furthermore, such schemes should not be subsidized by government, they should be able to stand on their own merit. There are a few other companies developing or selling hydraulic hybrid drives in the US: one in Michigan and another in Colorado. I suspect that such companies are grant farms, or their products must be subsidized heavily to entice buyers. The company that inherited the EPA design, American Hydraulic Power, (<a href="" target="_blank"></a>) closed their Troy, Michigan office in 2012 and is up for sale, but I doubt that it will sell.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for saving energy and protecting habitat and wildlife, I am a tree-hugging, nature-loving outdoorsman and camper, and efficiency appeals to me as an engineer. I understand what many climate alarmists feel; 7 billion people is a bit scary to contemplate. I also worry about the environment and the future. We all thought that gasoline prices would only go up and up, just as we thought that real estate would do the same, until the bubble burst.

Our tax dollars at work.


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Reader Comments (36)

"Pompous and intoxicated by his position, he considered himself some kind of mechanical engineering genius, yet he only held a chemical engineering degree. "

If it were the other way around , he might have found his calling as a Sky Dragons co-author, or true believer in gravity as the driving force in radiative equilbrium.

May 25, 2015 at 10:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Vehicles have grown steadily more economical over the years as engines have become more efficient. My parents first car was a Ford Prefect with a three speed gearbox and side valve engine, It did about 30mpg despite being small and slow. I tend to drive diesels nowadays and have recorded 65mpg on a trip from East Yorkshire to Cornwall cruising at a steady 70mph. My driving style means that I use my brakes very little. This is simply achieved by reading the road ahead and easing off the throttle sooner. So I suspect that storing and re-using the energy from my brakes wouldn't save very much.

May 25, 2015 at 10:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterStonyground

A very interesting post, John. Sadly, not in the least bit surprising - especially the 'grant farm' perception.

May 25, 2015 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

A clockwork motor, with a spring, wound up by a wind turbine, would have been simpler, cheaper, lighter, etc, ......

May 25, 2015 at 10:57 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Thanks for sharing, John. I enjoyed the narrative.

May 25, 2015 at 10:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrute

Similar to tax payer's money wasted on Carbon Capture and Storage..

May 25, 2015 at 11:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stroud

Russell, how private individuals act or don't act is their affair, but people like Gray are using public money. I know that most warmists are sucking on the government teat, but surely even you recognise there's a difference in responsibility.

May 25, 2015 at 11:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Wasting other people’s money is one thing, but, admitting to wasting one’s life, education and common sense in the pursuit of proven and practical futility is hideously shameful and completely preventable.

May 25, 2015 at 11:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterPAYG

Thanks for this John. It makes me sad how much money is being poured into things the people on the ground know won't work. It's a rare manager who listens to the concerns of those working for them. My Dad had a very lucrative consultancy listening to employees and then selling the revelations to the guys at the top. Climate change is just one of an unending stream of wasted energy and money. Too often this sort of scheme stems from the personal interests of the senior guy.

A friend worked for a company where the chairman was obsessed with AGW. He made everyone go on courses devised and presented by George Monbiot. Most of the attendees were climate sceptics but made a pact not to query anything Monbiot said because it would be both career limiting and make the sessions last longer. Monbiot and the boss were very pleased how well the training went, not a single dissenting voice. Much like shy Tories, closet sceptics are everywhere but only evident when it really matters.

May 25, 2015 at 11:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

UPS and FedEx operate fleets of very old trucks. Well maintained antiques. For a reason. Any device, such as a hydraulic assist, must be mountable in the existing fleet.

Motor vehicles in the U.S. are subject to county property taxes. By maintaining old fleets, they pay very little property tax.

Very interesting story, Mr. Bell.

May 25, 2015 at 12:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

You consider a ten year payback period to be uneconomic (and I'd agree). What is truly shocking is the number of schemes where the payback period is even longer that are promoted by our Green overlords. I tried the calculator at the Energy Saving Trust.

It came up with the following (approximate paybacks calculated by me):

Cost Saving p.a. Payback (years)
Loft insulation £290 £20 14.5
Cavity Wall £600 £110 5.5
Solid Floor £1,870 £70 26.7
New Boiler £2,500 £80 31.3

I find it of note that they fail to even provide the payback periods as a matter of course, and shocking that they are seriously recommending measures that would never pay off at normal rates of borrowing. We need a law that tells them not to promote anything with a payback beyond 7 years.

May 25, 2015 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterIt doesn't add up...

"Motor vehicles in the U.S. are subject to county property taxes."

Certainly not all counties and certainly not all states, and certainly not a US Federal tax.

May 25, 2015 at 12:43 PM | Unregistered Commenterrms

Interesting. Having worked on a few Government contracts myself, it is astonishing the lack of regard all around for taxpayer money.

More specifically with regards to your cost analysis, I must be missing something because your numbers do not make sense:
You say:
"the average UPS (or FedEx) package truck gets about 10 mpg and drives about 12,000 miles per year. UPS reports that the hydraulic hybrid system improves mileage 25% to about 12.5 mpg, which results in a savings of about 500 gallons per year."

Going from 10 mpg to 12.5 mpg changes annual fuel consumption from 1200 gallons to 960! What am I missing.

In addition, a total cost of ownership approach would likely increase the payback period well beyond 10 years.

May 25, 2015 at 1:18 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie1815

...I understand what many climate alarmists feel; 7 billion people is a bit scary to contemplate. I also worry about the environment and the future. We all thought that gasoline prices would only go up and up,...

If only you had read Julian Simon! Then you would understand why:

- 7, or 8, or 9 billion people is no problem at all
- the environment and the future gan only get better
- gasoline/raw material prices generally can only come down...

May 25, 2015 at 2:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

$50m here ... $50m there ... and pretty soon we're talking about real money.

There is a sort of unreality about taxpayers' money which is like walking through Alice's Looking Glass. How many taxpayers have to work for how many hours to generate $50m? And, I include in that all the indirect taxes which we are forced to pay just to survive. All taken from our pockets.

I applaud John Bell for being honest about what happened in this case, which is only the tip of the iceberg.

Not being versed in his field, what stood out for me was his remark that governments are (like most of the market) not particularly good at picking technologies. The difference is, in the marketplace, the money being risked is not first forcibly extracted from the productive sectors of the economy and then thrown around irrespective of their wishes.

May 25, 2015 at 3:29 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

I see bernie1815 has beaten me to it. I agree that the figures in the cost saving example are not right. Also, 12,000 for a delivery van seems very low. I can do that driving to work.

If you change the mileage to 25,000 per year the figures work but even that sounds a bit low to me.

May 25, 2015 at 3:32 PM | Unregistered Commentergraphicconception

"In March of 2004 I took a job as a hydraulic pump design engineer at a private company in Auburn Hills, Michigan."

That's all I needed to read to know the author was going to talk sense.

"it seems attractive on the surface, until you examine the numbers"

This applies to almost every green/eco project I know of.

May 25, 2015 at 3:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterNial

Bernie1815, yes I agree with your numbers, mine are in error, it would be a savings of 240 gallons per year, or $720 per year (at $3/gal) and so to pay back $15,000 would take over 20 years! The EPA think that such a truck would be mass produced and so the extra cost would be minimal but that is never how it works.
Maybe Andrew or moderator would be so kind as to correct my article.

May 25, 2015 at 3:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Bell

"Interesting. Having worked on a few Government contracts myself, it is astonishing the lack of regard all around for taxpayer money."

Ditto here! I do my best to get them to behave more commercially but it just never sinks in. The rot starts at the top but spreads everywhere. As I'm still in the job I'll say no more.

May 25, 2015 at 4:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

"Payback times of 10 years do not make good business sense. "

Sounds like solar panels on a UK roof to me . . .

May 25, 2015 at 5:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterCapell


May 25, 2015 at 7:27 PM | Unregistered Commenterold grumpy


May 25, 2015 at 7:48 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar


Early solar FiTs were a licence to print money - at the expense of the rest of us of course, as even George Monbiot conceded:

Now the paybacks are extending:

The average domestic solar PV system is 4kWp and costs £5,000 - 8,000 (including VAT at 5 per cent).

If your system is eligible for the Feed-in Tariff scheme, you could generate savings and receive payments of £610 - £740 a year depending on your location if you register before July 2015 (based on a 4kWp solar PV system eligible for a generation tariff of 13.39p/kWh).

6.8-13.1 years on that data.

May 25, 2015 at 9:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterIt doesn't add up...

@TinyCO2 at 11:24 AM

"A friend worked for a company where the chairman was obsessed with AGW. He made everyone go on courses devised and presented by George Monbiot."

really !!! any chance of a link/info on this ?


May 25, 2015 at 10:29 PM | Unregistered Commenterdougieh

In 1983, a friend assumed the role of Industrial Consultant on the staff of a US Senator despite having a Harvard (not HBS) degree and no industrial experience whatever. He was sent out to offer advice to a large foundry in the Senator's state which was about to close.

The CEO told him that they could not buy the raw materials required for casting for the price that the Chinese were able to deliver competent finished product to the US. CEO was not amused by my friend's suggestion that he buy Chinese finished product and use that for feedstock for his own castings.

Neville (Norway) Shutte's autobiography, "Slide Rule" contains several chapters on the simultaneous design of dirigibles R-100 and R-101 by private industry and the government respectively. The results are just as you might guess. Anyone with experience trying to make something technical work will find himself chuckling at the description of the design process used in the government effort.

I cannot recommend this book too highly to engineering types who I suspect will be as entertained as I was by the chapter which commenced with a caution that the non-technical might find it a bit opaque. The gist of it was that they iterated the design of the cable-stayed frames until no cables were any longer in compression.

May 25, 2015 at 11:22 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

Just like windmills and solar panels I would suggest.

May 26, 2015 at 3:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterRealOz

Solar hot dog warmers.
Damn, why didn't think I think of that?
Not too late. Solar six-pack coolers, anyone?

May 26, 2015 at 7:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterMuon

dougieh, no sorry, it was a personal account but the company is a big name in engineering. One of the supporters of the notorious 10:10 campaign. My friend said the presentation was very persuasive but with the usual fibs that made us sceptics take notice and start asking questions. What the presentation didn't include was any suggestions how worrying about AGW should change how they did things. It was the height of the recession and lean and mean was essential for more pressing reasons than climate change. The whole thing made my friend quite cross and still hasn't any patience for talking about it.

May 26, 2015 at 8:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

"the average UPS (or FedEx) package truck gets about 10 mpg and drives about 12,000 miles per year"

I hate to criticise a fellow engineer, but should that not be 120,000 miles?

May 26, 2015 at 9:09 AM | Registered Commenterjamesp

figure 120,000/52/6/10=38+ average miles per hour. this cannot be correct for urban environments including stops.

Maybe figure 52 week year, 6 day week, 10 hour day, 50% drive time, urban 20 mph speed when driving
52*6*10/2*20= 31,200 which might be closer, so maybe 12k isn't that far off.

May 26, 2015 at 1:33 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

John, you say that "I played along: it was a good job to have." Why didn't you suggest the alternative drive? Perhaps you should have put this in writing to Charles Gray, and pointed out how much more efficient the alternative was. Perhaps Mr. Gray would have adopted this approach. Or if he didn't perhaps someone above him in the chain of command might have corrected him. Or you could have written your Congressman -- or the press - if he didn't and made the same points, and triggered an inquiry. Why did you let him waste the taxpayer's money unnecessarily?

May 27, 2015 at 1:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames Repace

As to miles per year for a delivery vehicle, it depends a lot on population density. This 2010 study by NREL indicates on the top of page 14 that the average miles/year for the FedEx truck fleet in the Los Angeles area is 10,000 miles/year.

May 27, 2015 at 3:55 PM | Unregistered Commenterchris y

Doesn't a serial hybrid alow the engine to run in its most efficient operating range more (most?) of the time?

May 27, 2015 at 11:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

If I may summarise your little story, you took a job working on a government funded product that would be good for your CV. You knew nothing about serial hydraulic hybrid drives when you joined but despite failing to make one work very well you managed to pick up a few things and now think the project was impractical (even though it clearly can work well, witness RunWise). You don't approve of government funded projects but you and your mates milked the taxpayer for 5 years until the recession kicked you out. Is that about right?

May 28, 2015 at 2:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Hydraulics apparently work great for 2WD AT motorcycles:

May 31, 2015 at 4:05 AM | Unregistered Commenternutso fasst

A minor point that jumped out at me: The EPA is located in the International Trade Center/Ronald Reagan Building, which is home to several federal agencies, including the EPA headquarters. All the agencies share the underground parking lot so it is not possible to link a particular vehicle, such as an SUV, to an employee at a particular agency.

Jun 1, 2015 at 4:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhound

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